It’s impossible to visit Gyeongju, a city in Gyeongsangbuk-do province of South Korea, without being overwhelmed by its rich history. There are World Heritage and South Korean National Treasure sites in every corner of Gyeongju, which is virtually a museum without walls.
Stone pagodas and temples
I wander among stone pagodas, temples and burial sites reading inscriptions on grave stones, marvelling at sculptures and paintings that are thousands of years old. Most of the historical sites are from the Silla Dynasty, where three kingdoms within the Korean peninsula united to form the country’s most successful empire.
A key Silla figure was a woman, Seunduk, a queen and priestess with legendary shamanistic powers. The oldest stone relic in South Korea, the Cheomseongdae Observatory was built during the queen’s reign (from 632AD to 647AD).
During my visit, I saw a shaman performance where women in dazzling robes danced as if possessed by spirits. The rhythmic pounding of the drums and the abandon in which the women lost themselves in the music was a spellbinding distraction from the silent monuments.
Gyeongju’s seven districts include the Namsan district, with its Buddhist statues, stone pagodas and hundreds of temples, and Mount Tohamsan, where the famous Bulguksa Temple and its assembly of orderly terraces, curling tiled roofs, ornately decorated halls is located.
The temple’s courtyard is teeming with tourists, many from other parts of South Korea. They come to admire the temple’s two famous pagodas, the 10-meter high Dabo Pagoda to the east and the three-story Seokga Pagoda to the west.
Young South Koreans whirr and click around me, capturing images of the ancient structures with shiny new mobile phone cameras and camcorders.
The pagodas are picturesque but the most important building is the meditation hall Museoljeon (hall of no words). When I enquire about the origin of its name, my guide tells me that: “Buddha’s teachings cannot be taught with words alone.”
Silla Dynasty kings were buried in 23 tombs at Daereung-won Tumuli Park. The tombs are interesting but I can’t help being more taken by the parades of school children marching around them.
The children are dressed in colour-coded sweat shirts and marshalled by whistle-blowing teachers. The young ones laugh and giggle, covering their mouths with their hands, and make funny faces for my camera. It’s a heartening snippet of life in South Korea.
Yangdong Folk Village
I visit Yangdong Folk Village, Korea’s largest traditional village and a showcase for Joseon Dynasty culture. The Joseon Dynasty was Korea’s last imperial rule.
My guide leads me into the yard of a typical home where an elderly couple is tending to a vegetable patch. It’s a rural scene with freshly-picked green vegetables strewn across a low table next to a spread of read beans drying on a sheet of old newspaper. Their home is a traditional stone cottage with a thatched roof.
One evening I take a stroll around Anapji Pond, which was once part of the grounds of the royal family’s palace. The pond was dug out thousands of years ago during King Munmu’s reign (661 to 681AD) and planted out with orchids, peonies, lotus and azaleas. Swans, peacocks and deer once roamed here.
The pagodas and gardens around the pond are lit up like a fairyland. I picture dashing princes and royal ladies in beautifully embroidered hanbok feasting in the lakeside pavilions.
The scene is peaceful and serene. I come across three young children resting quietly on a bench and come to the conclusion that even the toddlers in South Korea are taught to appreciate tranquillity.
My final stop for the evening is Bunhwangsa Temple, once a sanctuary where monks and artists came to write and paint. But tonight, there’s a celebration in full swing with visitors gathered in front of the Mojeon stone pagoda.
Men and women in business suits (Koreans tend to dress well) hold hands with hostesses dressed in cream and burgundy hanbok as they dance beneath rice paper lanterns. The women swirl gracefully to a cacophony of traditional music.
A South Korean friend once described Korean music as imitating the sounds of nature: a trickling stream, grass rustling in the wind or rain pelting on the temple roofs.
I listen hard to the music and for a glimmer of a second I think I hear the ancient stone walls whispering to me.